21 January 2024

Saint Michael’s Church
in St Albans is the most
significant surviving Saxon
building in Hertfordshire

Saint Michael’s Church, St Albans, is the best-preserved Saxon building in Hertfordshire and the most significant surviving Anglo-Saxon building in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Michael’s Church on the western edges of St Albans in Hertfordshire is near the centre of the site of Roman Verulamium, the Roman Theatre and the Verulamium Museum.

Saint Michael’s Church is the best-preserved Saxon building in Hertfordshire, and many regard it as the most significant surviving Anglo-Saxon building in England.

Saint Michael’s Church was built in the 10th century on the site of the basilica, the headquarters of Roman Verulamium. It may have been here that Saint Alban was tried for being a Christian before he was executed outside the town walls, perhaps where St Albans Abbey now stands.

According to the 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris, Wulsin (or Ulsinus), Abbot of St Alban’s Abbey, founded a church on each of the three main roads into the town in the year 948 – Saint Michael’s, Saint Peter’s and Saint Stephen’s – to serve pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Alban.

However, Wulsin may have been abbot ca 860-880, and the earliest parts of Saint Michael’s are at least a century later. The church certainly dates from the late Anglo-Saxon era and there may have been an earlier wooden church on the site.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

A stone church was built on a simple plan in the late 10th or early 11th century, with a chancel and a nave. The building includes much Roman material salvaged or purloined from the surrounding Roman ruins of Verulamium, including Roman brick used in the splays of the nave windows.

A north aisle and then a south aisle were added in the early 12th century. They were linked with the nave by arcades of plain round-headed arches cut in the north and south walls of the nave, leaving sections of the Saxon wall as piers. The arcades do not match: the earlier north arcade has three bays spaced irregularly; the later south arcade was built with four bays. The round-headed Norman window at the east end of the north aisle may also date from the 12th century.

When the aisles were added, the church became much darker inside. A clerestory with six Early English lancet windows on each side was added to the nave in the 13th century to increase the amount of natural light. Another Early English lancet window from this period survives in the north wall of the chancel.

Efforts were made to stabilise the south aisle when it became unstable, but it was demolished at a later date.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The south chapel was added in the 13th century, and the easternmost arch of the south aisle became the entrance to the chapel. Three of the chapel’s windows are round-headed 13th century late Norman arches: two in the east wall and one in the south wall.

The south chapel is taller than the nave, so the more easterly windows on the south side of the clerestory now look into the chapel instead of outside. The church may also have been given a west tower in the 13th century.

The chancel and the north aisle were rebuilt ca 1340 and the chancel arch was enlarged. The Decorated east window, an ogee-headed south window and matching tomb recess in the chancel, and one of the windows in the north aisle, all date from this time.

Three of the single lancets on the north side of the clerestory were replaced in the 15th century with two-light square-headed windows, two large windows were inserted in the south wall of the south chapel and one in the south wall of the chancel.

The piscinas in the chancel and south chapel, and the octagonal font also date from the 15th century. The font is now known to have been carved from a single piece of stone. The 13th-century clerestory was given a new roof on stone corbels late in the 15th century.

Mediaeval wall paintings in the south chancel and the Ascension window by Burlison and Gryllis in Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Also in the 15th century, a wooden tympanum was inserted in the 14th-century chancel arch and a ‘Doom’ was painted on it, spreading over the upper part of the east wall of the nave. A rood screen was added to the chancel arch at that time. It has since been removed, but stone stairs to it survive on the south side of the arch next to the south chapel.

The tower may have been remodelled in the late 15th or early 16th century. In its final form it had paired bell-openings, an embattled parapet and a polygonal stair-turret that was taller than the tower. A late Perpendicular west window of three lights was inserted in the west wall of the nave, probably early in the 16th century.

St Alban’s Abbey was suppressed in 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The patronage of Saint Michael’s then passed from the abbey to the nearby Gorhambury Estate. One of the owners of Gorhambury was the Tudor politician, author, philosopher and early scientist Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

The 17th century monument in the chancel to Francis Bacon who died in 1626 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The most significant 17th century monument in Saint Michael’s is the monument to Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, who died in 1626. It is in a round-arched recess inserted in the north wall of the chancel.

Bacon had a successful political career, becoming Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England before being forced out of office on charges of corruption. He then retired to Gorhambury, outside St Albans, where he devoted his time to the study of philosophy and developed what became known as the scientific method, the basis for modern science.

The monument is a life-sized sculpture showing Bacon sitting in an armchair in a relaxed pose. The sculptor may have been Nicholas Stone. A copy of the statue sculpted by Henry Weekes (1845) is in the chapel in Trinity College, Cambridge.

The octagonal font, wooden pulpit and Victorian pews in Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint Michael’s present wooden pulpit, tester and altar table date from the late 16th or early 17th century. The east wall of the south chapel may have been rebuilt in the early 17th century. Between its two lancet windows is a circular one that may date from this time. The present roof of the south chapel may also date from the 17th century.

The royal coat of arms on the west wall of the Lady Chapel dates from the reign of Charles II.

A west gallery was inserted in the nave late in the 17th century, and box pews were also added.

The church was restored in 1866 by Sir George Gilbert Scott. He had the box pews and west gallery removed and added the Gothic Revival south porch, which uses one of the 12th-century arches of the former south aisle.

The 19th century oak pews date largely from Scott’s reordering in the 1860s, and some incorporate late mediaeval or early modern linenfold panelling.

The south chapel or Lady Chapel in Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Edmund Beckett, 1st Baron Grimthorpe, who left his mark on St Albans Cathedral at the same time, remodelled the west end of Saint Michael’s in 1896-1898 to his own designs and at his own expense. When he had the west tower demolished, the possible 13th century origins of the tower were discovered under its late Perpendicular external fabric.

Grimthorpe replaced the tower with a northwest tower in a ‘fanciful’ Gothic Revival interpretation of Early English Gothic. He extended the nave to the west, demolishing its old west wall and late Perpendicular west window, and also added a vestry on the site of the south aisle.

During these Victorian-era restorations, the 15th-century tympanum was taken down and the rest of the ‘Doom’ painting was obliterated.

The architect John C Rogers carried out further restoration work in 1934-1935 and added a second vestry on the north side of the chancel in 1938.

As well as Francis Bacon’s monument, Saint Michael's has some notable monumental brasses, including a 14th-century brass to John Pecock and his wife Maud in the south chapel.

Nathaniel Westlake’s window in the south chancel illustrates verses in the canticle ‘Te Deum’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The oldest glass in the church dates from the 17th century, and is a 13th century lancet window on the north side of the chancel, beside the Bacon monument. It may have come from the chapel in Gorhambury House. It shows the impaled heraldic arms of local families: Grimston impaling Croke, Grimston and Bacon impaling Cooke.

The other stained glass is mainly Victorian and the windows include:

Clayton and Bell: the Transfiguration (east window).

Burlison and Gryllis: the Ascension (south chancel); the visit of the Magi (north aisle); the Nativity (north aisle).

Nathaniel Westlake: a couple receiving Holy Communion at their wedding (bottom right), a woman and child by a man’s deathbed (bottom left), and above an illustration of words in the canticle Te Deum, ‘Make them to be humbled with thy saints in glory everlasting’ and ‘The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee’ (south chancel).

Ward and Hughes: two lancets showing the Beatitudes and a roundel with the Star of David (Lady Chapel, east end); Christ blessing the children (Lady Chapel, south wall); early events in the life of Christ, including the Wedding at Cana, the Presentation in the Temple, and the visit of the shepherds (Lady Chapel, south wall); Christ carrying the Cross and the angels announcing the Resurrection (Lady Chapel, south wall).

Hardman: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (north aisle); Saint Peter and Saint Paul (north facing clerestory); Saint Alban and Saint Stephen (north facing clerestory).

The west window, installed in 1866 and moved to its present place in 1899, depicts the three archangels, Gabriel, Michael and Rapael.

The surviving section of the ‘Doom’ painting is painted on a semi-circular section of wood (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

For me, though, the most fascinating survivals in the church are three remnants of mediaeval painting. One of the timber roof beams is painted, as well as a lancet window embrasure in the nave. But the most interesting painting is a section of a ‘Doom’, a depiction of the Day of Judgement painted on a semi-circular section of wood.

The Doom, dated to the 15th century, acted as a tympanum at the top of the chancel arch. The Doom was boarded over at the Reformation and was covered by layers of lime wash. It was only rediscovered in 1808 during building work. The entire scene was sketched, and the tympanum rescued, before the arch was rebuilt in its present form.

A tapestry on the south wall depicts the 1808 drawing of the entire Doom painting. As for the tympanum, it shows six figures rising up from their coffins on the Day of Judgment. Two of the figures wear a crown and another appears to be wearing a bishop’s mitre.

Saint Michael’s has been a Grade I listed building since 1950 because of its extensive late Anglo-Saxon fabric, the phases of expansion in the High Middle Ages, the 15th century nave roof, the tympanum with surviving part of the 15th century Doom painting, the late Elizabethan or early Jacobean pulpit, and Bacon’s Jacobean monument.

The three archangels, Saint Michael (centre), Saint Gabriel and Saint Rapael, in the west window in Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

• The Revd Jonny Lloyd, former Minor Canon and Precentor of St Albans, is the Vicar of Saint Michael’s. Sunday services are at 8 am, Said Eucharist; 9:30 am, the Parish Eucharist; with a mid-week Eucharist on Wednesdays at 10:30. The church is open daily.

Saint Michael’s Church is open daily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayers during
Christmas and Epiphany:
28, 21 January 2024

The Wedding at Cana … an icon in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The celebrations of Epiphany-tide continue today, the Third Sunday of Epiphany (21 January 2024), which is also the fourth day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Christmas is a season that lasts for 40 days that continues from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Later this morning, I hope to sing with the choir at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford. But, before today begins, I am taking some time for reflection, reading and prayer.

Today’s Gospel reading tells of the Wedding at Cana, one of the traditional Epiphany stories, and Charlotte and I chose this as the Gospel reading at our wedding celebration in the Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral.

In keeping with the theme of today’s Gospel reading, my reflections each morning throughout the seven days of this week include:

1, A reflection on one of seven meals Jesus has with family, friends or disciples;

2, the Gospel reading of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Wedding at Cana, depicted by Giotto in a fresco panel in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1, The Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2: 1-12):

The Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-12) is one of the traditional Gospel readings during Epiphany-tide, and is the first of the signs in the Fourth Gospel.

Along with the Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12, 6 January 2024, The Epiphany), and the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist (John 1: 29-34, 7 January 2024), these three themes at Epiphany tell us who Christ truly is: truly God and truly human.

This morning’s Gospel story is so familiar that we forget what its first impact may have been.

The saying about serving the good wine first is so well known that we forget that this is not what happens at all.

Sometimes, we convince ourselves that at this wedding in Cana they plan to first serve the good wine, and then when people are drunk they can put up with cheap plonk.

Not so.

Think of how many festive meals finish with the good wine.

I was surprised rummaging around after Christmas some years ago to find two bottles of fine port I had forgotten about: one from Portugal and one from the cellars of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Beside them was a good bottle of desert wine that I had received as a present in Greece. They were such appropriate ways that year to finish off some good meals and celebrations at Christmas and the New Year.

No good wedding would finish without opening the champagne to toast the happy couple.

In Greece and in other parts of the Mediterranean, where wedding celebrations can last for a few days, perhaps even three days, the good wine comes out at the end, to toast the couple and to send the guests away knowing they have been welcome.

And this wedding story is about one other, long, weekend wedding, like so many that Jesus and the Disciples must have enjoyed.

Because he enjoyed a good wedding, Jesus uses the wedding banquet as an image of the Kingdom in two other Gospels (see Matthew 22: 1-14; Luke 14: 15-24), and it helps to understand why he is referred to as the bridegroom at least 14 times in the New Testament (e.g., see Matthew 9: 14-15; Matthew 25: 1-13; Mark 2: 18-20; Luke 5: 33-35; John 3: 29; Revelation 18: 23; Revelation 19: 9; Revelation 21: 2).

As with all good wedding stories, we might expect today’s Gospel story to be one about love, and one in which they all live happily ever after.

Imagine the happy couple who turn up for this wedding. This should be their great day. People have come from far and wide to celebrate with them. And, in good Mediterranean fashion, after two or three days, when everyone is about to go, there is a last dance, and a last toast: to the Bride and Groom. Or, so it was planned.

But before they get to that stage, the wine gives out (verse 3).

Is this because everyone has had too much to drink? Is it because the groom, despite expectations, did not buy enough wine? Or, is it because the groom has bought enough wine, but someone is siphoning it off, hoping everyone is going to be too drunk to notice?

It is an embarrassing occasion. But for whom?

Certainly for Mary, she takes action immediately. You can just picture her as the concerned aunt, like so many aunts at a wedding, not wanting her nephew or his new wife to be embarrassed.

But it is not embarrassing for Jesus. Nor is it embarrassing for the servants either. They seem to have done just what they were told to do.

Wine fraud is one of the oldest frauds in the world. Perhaps the finger of suspicion points at the chief steward, the master of the feast, the ἀρχιτρίκλινος (architríklinos) in verses 8-10. He has not been paying attention to what has been going on. At best, he has been negligent, at worst he was complicit, perhaps even the organiser.

Have the newly-wed couple and their guests, and their servants too, been the victims of a smart con trick by the chief steward? Is he inefficient? Does he not realise what is going on? Did he not buy all the wine that he charged for? Or, perhaps, has he been siphoning off the wine?

He is certainly not a model of probity as a wedding planner, avoiding some potentially tough questions when he claims dismissively: ‘Everyone serves the good wine first’ (verse 10).

That is patently not so. And he never even asks where the wine comes from. He just accepts that it is there. Perhaps he suspects he has been caught out.
I can see him throwing his arms up in the air, denying responsibility and trying to shift the blame onto someone, anyone, else. He seems to behave in a way like senior management in the Post Office shifted the blame for system failures onto sub-postmasters.

In his column in the Church Times this weekend (19 January 2024), Paul Vallely writes about ‘the Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power.’ He says ‘barely a month goes by’ without seeing examples ‘of the disregard of those in power for ordinary people.’

He continues: ‘This week it was the victims of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale. Last week, it was the sub-postmasters … Before that, it was teachers bullied by Ofsted inspectors, one so severely that she took her own life … Then there were the survivors of the Grenfell Tower inferno, the Windrush scandal, and the contaminated blood scandal.

‘The common factor in all these cases is an arrogant disdain for those whom they are supposed to serve. There is an all-too-familiar pattern of denial, cover-up, and deceit – and a default response, above all else, to protect the reputations of powerful individuals and institutions … It is only the prospect of a General Election later this year that has temporarily brought those in power to public account.’

So often in life, ordinary people are cheated out of what is theirs, deprived of what they are entitled to, left without hope.

The ‘Queen of Mean,’ the late Leona Helmsley (1920-2007), once said when she was on trial for tax evasion: ‘Only the little people pay taxes’ (1989). So often in life, it is ‘the little people’ who pay their taxes, and pay the price when it comes to cuts in public services, the collapse of banks, inadequate finding for the NHS, schools and public transport, or bear the brunt when it comes to floods, natural disasters and the consequences of war and climate change. There are no heads of state or CEOs from large multinationals among the refugees seeking asylum in Europe today or risking deportation to Rwanda under the latest legislation.

Imagine the embarrassment of the couple who are among ‘the little people’ and who are cheated out of the toast to the bride and the groom at the very end of their wedding celebrations.

But Christ is with us at the moments when we feel cheated of our hopes for the future.

As for that wedding at Cana, as with all good stories, we might well ask: Did they live happily ever after?

Well, the lectionary compilers end this story at verse 11. But the next verse, verse 12, says: ‘After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.’

They go to the wedding together, and they go back together, but things have changed. After the wedding, someone is a new brother-in-law, a new sister-in-law, is going to be a new aunt or a new uncle. In time to come, a new family is structured.

It was a long walk back: 27 km (18 miles), and in the conditions of the time it would have taken a good day’s walk or longer.

What did they talk about on that long walk? Was that your cousin? Is she your new sister-in-law? Who did he dance with? Will they fall in love? Are they really in love?

When we publicly show our love for one another, when we form new families, when we allow the ripples of love to spread out in ways that we cannot control, in ways in which we lose control, then we are truly partners with God in creating the Kingdom of God.

Even if the couple at Cana broke up afterwards, grandparents would continue to share the same grandchildren.

We make family at weddings, but we cannot control family. When we go to family weddings, we have no choice about who is going to be a new brother-in-law, or who nieces or nephews decide to marry; we certainly have no say about who our grandparents were, the decisions they made or the way they behaved. And that is so for the generations to come too.

I imagine the Kingdom of God is like that. Those who are invited to the heavenly banquet are going to include people I at first may be uncomfortable to sit with at the same table. But I am not the host, I am the guest, and the invitations are sent out into the side-streets and the alleyways (Matthew 22: 9-10). ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19: 9).

I cannot choose who is invited to the wedding, but I can accept the invitation to the meal, and the invitation to be part of the new family, the kingdom.

And if we accept the invitation, we have no right to pick and choose, to discriminate against my fellow guests, to cheat them out of their place at the table, to refuse to eat and drink with them.

It was a common in Jewish thinking and imagery at the time to speak of wedding banquets as a foretaste of God’s heavenly promises. The Mishnah says: ‘This world is like a lobby before the World-To-Come. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.’

But then, so often throughout the Gospels, we find that great meals and wedding banquets provide a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet.

We are invited; but are we ready, are we prepared, to be wedding guests? (see Matthew 22: 1-14; Luke 14: 15-24). Think of the Ten Bridesmaids, and how the foolish ones are not ready when the bridegroom arrives (Matthew 25: 1-13).

On the other hand, plush dining can also tell us a lot about what the Kingdom of God is not like. Consider the story of the rich man, who dined sumptuously and alone, and left the starving, sick and dying Lazarus to go hungry at his gate (Luke 16: 19-31). This is not what the Kingdom of God is like, as Dives finds out. But he finds out when it is too late for his own good.

The great Biblical meals celebrate not only what was, as with the Passover, but what is, in the present, and what is to come, as with the wedding banquets – new promises, new covenants, new families, new expectations, new hopes.

‘The Wedding at Cana’ (John 2: 1-11) … one of 20 white porcelain ceramic panels by Helena Brennan at the Oblate Church in Inchicore, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 2: 1-11 [12] (NRSVA):

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

[12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days.]

‘Fill the jars with water … and they filled them up to the brim’ (John 2: 7) … two large jars or pithoi at the Minoan palace in Knossos, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 21 January 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is: ‘Provincial Programme on Capacity Building in Paraná.’ This theme is introduced today by Christina Takatsu Winnischofer, Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil:

The Province of Brazil programme this year is supporting the capacity building of clergy and lay people in the Anglican Missionary District (DMA) and the Anglican Diocese of Paraná (DAPAR), aiming to expand the church in both areas. DMA is an area made up of three states in the west of the country, and DAPAR covers the area of the state of Paraná in the south of Brazil.

Through different trainings and meetings, the church is deepening its reflection on personal and community commitments to the mission. By raising awareness of the role and responsibilities of Anglican Christians and providing the tools needed, the church intends to face the challenges of the Brazilian context on the many missionary fronts.

In each area, the communities have very diverse backgrounds; however, DMA and DAPAR are heavily involved in activities for social justice – supporting youth, women, landless and indigenous people. For the sustainability of these projects, more labour force is needed, not only technical professionals but leaders that understand the Gospel call.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (21 January 2024) invites us to pray reflecting on these words:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty Father,
whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world:
may your people,
illumined by your word and sacraments,
shine with the radiance of his glory,
that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed
to the ends of the earth;
for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

God of all mercy,
your Son proclaimed good news to the poor,
release to the captives,
and freedom to the oppressed:
anoint us with your Holy Spirit
and set all your people free
to praise you in Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection (Saint Jude)

Continued tomorrow (The feeding of the multitude)

‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ … a fresco in the Church of Analipsi in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org